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Being Lifted Out of the Ordinary

(or, People whom it would be wonderful to know…)

Occasionally, I come across a writer who simply bowls me over, perhaps with their insight into something that I’ve struggled with, or with an ability to express themselves that I just have to envy, or with a way of living, a passionate presence that permeates their words, forcing open a creaking door in my soul.

In this last category must be the writer of these words:

"When you consider something like death, after which (there being no news flash to the contrary) we may well go out like a candle flame, then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly. It probably doesn’t matter if, while trying to be modest and eager watchers of life’s many spectacles, we sometimes look clumsy or get dirty or ask stupid questions or reveal our ignorance or say the wrong thing or light up with wonder like the children we all are. It probably doesn’t matter if a passerby sees us dipping a finger into the moist pouches of dozens of lady’s slippers to find out what bugs tend to fall into them, and thinks us a bit eccentric. Or a neighbor, fetching her mail, sees us standing in the cold with our own letters in one hand and a seismically red autumn leaf in the other, its color hitting our senses like a blow from a stun gun, as we stand with a huge grin, too paralyzed by the intricately veined gaudiness of the leaf to move."

—Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Reading things like that, I feel like a blind person listening to a friend describing a beautiful sunset to me, not only making the scene vivid in my imagination, but gently leading me by the hand into an understanding of things which I only vaguely had been aware of before. She’s talking about death, the personal end of everything, and yet she’s also talking about what it’s like to be alive, truly alive. She says it doesn’t matter if we make a mess of things, or misunderstand, or look foolish—not when you put those things in relation to not being alive at all. The defining experience of everything is death. The rest of it doesn’t really matter, does it? That’s what she says.

And yet, the imaginary sunset that she places in my imagination makes death the thing that really doesn’t matter. Strange paradox. My absence of sight, illuminated by her glowing words, doesn’t matter, either. What I have been given could very well be far more real than if I were to witness the sunset itself.

Instead of being merely blind and transported vicariously to the sensations given to me, perhaps it is more accurate to say that I am dead, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to "know life intimately and lovingly," until she takes my hand and leads me through the experience. It is she who tells us that she is paralyzed by the color of an autumn leaf. It is I who am stunned by her "seismically red" words, paralyzed in mid-gesture, suddenly aware.

If life were at all fair, I wouldn’t need to be told all that. I’d have my own relationship with the intricately veined gaudiness of a leaf. If life were at all fair, I’d be able to take my guitar down off the wall and, like John Williams, experience Francisco Tarrega’s "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" ("Memories of the Alhambra") through my own fingers and ears. If life were at all fair, I’d have the nose of my dog Tasha, who zigzags deliriously across the little field behind our home, following the scent trails of other animals, as alive as I’ve ever seen her, in spite of her cloudy eyes and arthritic joints.

Oliver Sacks, in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat wrote of a young doctor who suddenly possessed an incredibly heightened sense of smell—and the emotional responses to go with it. For a matter of weeks, he lived in a different sensory world. "He found he could distinguish all his friends—and patients—by smell. ‘I went into the clinic, I sniffed like a dog, and in that sniff recognized, before seeing them, the twenty patients who were there.’" He admitted to a sense of loss, later, when his system returned to normal. The author tells us that the sense of smell in particular is closely linked with the emotional system, and suggests that some neurological short circuit, like that in an epileptic seizure, may have caused the experience. But one wonders why we are normally denied such epiphanies. Or if perhaps we deny ourselves, somehow.

Sarah Gregg, a photographer and correspondent writing to an email list from Italy, mused just yesterday about the limitations of our ordinary perceptions:

"There lingers still in many minds the unconscious assumption that the world was created with man as the central figure and is there for him to enjoy and exploit as his whim and wishes take him. But when you start to look beyond man's normal scale of vision you realise that all that breathtakingly intricate beauty was not created to be viewed through human eyes alone, but is part of a much greater pattern. This is true at both ends of the scale, from the superlatively large perhaps only appreciable from the air or even space, to the miniscule, becoming palpable only when captured through the macro lens.

"Losing yourself in the complex geometry of a simple flower just a few millimetres across, or looking into the eyes of a minute hopper or such a perfect predatory "machine" as a mantis puts the works of man into perspective, at least for me. And I like it just fine that way!"

She photographs nature, and many of her subjects are tiny flowers and insects, too small for most of us to notice as we go about our human-scale lives of automobiles and supermarkets and other people.

What I’m trying to get at here is that I miss a lot in life, but that I’m grateful to those who see beyond my reach and report their experiences to me. "Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be rich?" used to be a question drifting in and out of my awareness over the years, thinking about all the experiences I could then have. Now I wish, sometimes, for a more intense awareness of the life I muddle through, for the perception and eloquence of a Diane Ackerman or a John Williams or a Sarah Gregg, or even of that poor young doctor who for three weeks had the nose of a dog.

 

September 9, 2004

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